Dr. Stat

Dr. Stat is a Statistics Professor. This blog is his opportunity to share ideas and opinions about education (especially math education), politics, and whatever else comes up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Bill Gates on High Schools

On February 26, Bill Gates spoke at the National Education Summit on High Schools. His speech is available on the Gates Foundation site here. The whole thing is well worth reading. Although many media outlets have covered the speech, and various excellent quotes have been highlighted, it is better to go to the source and get the full context. I will provide a few small quotes relating to issues I want to discuss, but they will not be representative of the whole message. I substantially agree with Mr. Gates, but there are some things I would rather take in a different direction, or provide another focus. Gates is under fire in some quarters, for some of the things he says. I am not generally in sympathy with his critics from the education establishment.
America's high schools are obsolete ... designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age.

In all the talk about reforming education, one rarely hears a statement as far reaching and profound as this. We act as though our system of education is timeless, that it is a feature of America as permanent and intrinsic to our society as the very constitution. Yet, this is hardly the case. Gates reminds us that today's concept of a high school is a recent invention. There is nothing sacred about it. There is no particular reason why we must have a system shaped like the one we have. However, an institution, once established is hard to change. While some conservatives call for the elimination of public education altogether, on the basis that the system is flawed, failed, and hopelessly immoral, most people do not think in such far-reaching terms. Gates isn't saying that, either. But he is bringing a new concept to bear on the debate (at least I haven't heard it expressed quite this way): the business/industry concept of obsolescence. We had something that worked for a while. It doesn't work anymore. Let's invent something new. That just makes sense.

But what would it look like?

The idea behind the old design was that you could train an adequate workforce by sending only a third of your kids to college ...

Bill believes all children should be taught (or "trained," perhaps--he seems to focus on education as preparation for employment) to be ready for college. Here is where he and I will disagree. I have children of my own. I know their abilities. There is one I hope will go to graduate school. There is another that barely got through high school and is not going to college. This happened in spite of years of effort to turn things around. But in the end, her abilities simply are not at that level. We have to face this as a fact of life. The rhetoric presented by Bill Gates, which is, in this regard, similar to the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind, seems to be based on the notion that all children are born with equal abilities and come to school with equal abilities. This flies in the face of common sense and science alike. Children differ in many ways, and notable among these differences are vast differences in educational potential.

Of course there are dangers. It is wrong to label a child as lacking potential without justification, or on false premises such as socioeconomic status. It is clear that this happens in schools now. But it is also wrong to deny that differences exist. Not all children can go to college. Not all children should go to college. In fact, not all children with the ability to do so WANT to go to college. Bill Gates himself is not suffering greatly from the lack of a college degree. It is also wrong to push people too hard in directions they do not want to go. And I'm sure that Microsoft would hire any high school wiz kid with an amazing gift for programming without requiring a college degree, at least the Microsoft of the past would have. Perhaps things have changed.

I believe strongly that too many people are going to college today. This would come as a great surprise to Bill Gates, but perhaps he should listen to the rest of what I have to say. We still have, in this society many, many jobs that do not even require a high school education. Yet employers hesitate to hire people without a diploma. This is based on real-world experience, because people who do not finish high school rarely have the qualities needed to be good employees. So, a high school diploma is serving as a proxy for something else--a measure of dependability or employability. However, we find that a high school diploma doesn't guarantee the kind of skill set employers expect, when their actual need is a high school level of performance. So, they bump up the requirement to a college degree for what should be high-school level jobs. Like the high school diploma, the college degree is a proxy for something else--an insurance policy for a high school level of achievement and a greater level of maturity.

In the early 1900's, a young lady could become a school teacher (grades 1-8) by going to a normal school for a short period, in some cases 9 months. She then had the skills necessary to teach everything through eighth grade. I have examined many textbooks (mostly math) for elementary school from that era. It is true that the topics have changed, but the most amazing difference between the texts of that era and today are found in the difficulty level. Much of the eighth grade math I found in those books would be very difficult for today's high school students. Now, the truth is, it was out of reach for many of those eighth graders as well, and many people did not get that far in school. I have also examined 1940's and 1950's high school textbooks, and consistently find that even the mathematics intended for non-college bound students would be considered college math by today's standards.

Once we realize that we are keeping low-income and minority kids out of rigorous courses, there can be only two arguments for keeping it that way--either we think they can't learn, or we think they're not worth teaching. The first argument is factually wrong; the second is morally wrong.

So, I find that Bill Gates is spot-on when it comes to rigor. There is no excuse for the depths to which we have let education fall, at all levels. We have "dumbed down" the schools. We have taught to the "lowest common denominator." We have shunned and stigmatized rigorous standards and meaningful assessments. We have engaged in "social promotion." This is not part of the system, this is part of the culture. It is deeply imbedded in the indoctrination that colleges of education foist upon their students. But Bill is wrong if he thinks all students can learn equally. That is simply not true. Failure to recognize and deal with innate differences means that some students will be unable to keep up with expectations, while others will not be challenged to use their talents to the fullest. Children cannot all be taught alike, not without damaging those at both ends of the ability spectrum (or would you rather say, "spokes of the ability wheel?"). And that is another fallacy of the obsolete system, which at first allowed tracking, then rejected it. Some kind of choice or alternative pathway is absolutely necessary to enable all students to learn at their maximum potential. We are letting the politics of class dictate what is and is not permissible in education--and the children are worse off because of it.

...we must stop rationing education in America.

Here we have a deliberate use of an emotionally charged term. In what sense, if any, is it accurate? Rationing implies that there is a shortage, and not all can have full access. Actually, the intent of rationing is to restrict everyone's access so that all may have a minimally sufficient amount. Does this describe education? Well, first, there is no shortage. Certainly the entire country is well-staffed and well-equipped with buildings and supplies. I realize there are complaints in some schools, but shortages are not due to lack of funds, rather to misappropriation. In terms of dollar count and body count, there is certainly enough to go around. But much is wasted or spent foolishly.

Instead of determining that all children should go to college, we should raise the bar for eighth grade and 12th grade education. We should make those 12 years count for much more then they currently do. We should examine the process and strip away the waste, both in resources and student time. Find out what is really important and then focus on that. Set standards that require actual learning, not just seat time and participation in fun activities. I say, bring back the eighth grade diploma, and make it mean something. What passes for a high school proficiency exam today, in states that have them, is much more appropriate for an eighth grade level. Let's stop kidding ourselves. If that is enough education to get a high school diploma, then why not let eighth graders who can pass the test graduate (I have little doubt that about 10% of eighth graders could pass the high school exit exams in states that have them)? A good standard for a high school exit exam already exists. It's called an IB or International Baccalaureate. Students graduating from high school in an IB school already have the equivalent of an AA degree in a community college. This can and should be done, nationwide. This kind of diploma would be sufficient for many jobs that now require a college degree. And then, let's go on and raise the bar for a college education. Weak programs whose requirements include little more than busywork and ideological indoctrination should be eliminated. Scientific, technical, and engineering fields can be made internationally competitive in their rigor, where they are not already so.

Then too, we need to give students varying amounts of time to accomplish the goals according to their abilities. Surely we are smart enough that we can figure out a way to do this? Students shouldn't have to "flunk" or be "held back." The idea of repeating a whole year, of all subjects, is absurd. If students need more time, more practice, give it to them. But hold them to one standard. When they meet it, they move on. Those who are having trouble need extra intervention. Give them what they need. Honestly, I can't believe this is so hard! It is the rigidness of the current system that prevents finding workable solutions.

In the end, we will never succeed if we do not overcome the cultural barriers. Bill Gates' goals cannot be met by students who have no desire to meet them, whose parents do not expect it of them, and whose peers actively discourage them. This is where the real crux of the problem lies, and it is absolutely central to the racial and class differences we see in educational attainment. Frequently overlooked are the facts that not all minorities are equally affected by educational disadvantages. Many (though not all) Asians, as well as blacks coming from certain African countries, lead the pack in educational attainment. It's not discrimination, rationing, or obsolescence--it's culture. That's what has to change. The culture of dependence, that says "You owe me" and "I'm entitled" and "I just want to have fun" instead of "I want to contribute" and "What can I do to repay" is the problem. We need to get back the work ethic, and we need to actively teach it to our children. Otherwise, there will be no progress, no matter how much money Bill Gates or anyone else pumps into the system.